Traditional histories of the European colonization of North America concentrate on British settlements along the Atlantic seaboard. The focus is often on the concept of a "new people" in a New World who found opportunities that were not open to them in their native countries. For historian Alan Taylor, who received both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize in 1996 for Mr. Cooper's Town, that approach "provides only a painfully limited picture of colonial life."
In his new book, American Colonies, Taylor paints a broader and more complex portrait of colonization by going back thousands of years and proceeding to the more recent period emphasized in many histories. In particular, he emphasizes the crucial roles played by various powers the Spanish, Dutch and French who interacted on the continent and strongly influenced the direction of events before the American Revolution. Drawing on the latest scholarship, Taylor expands our understanding of our own history in this comprehensive and exciting book. Focusing on regional explorations that move forward in time, Taylor draws on environmental history of the region and ethnohistory of colonial peoples. He emphasizes the pivotal role in colonization played by Native Americans, who were "indispensable" as "trading partners, guides, religious converts, and military allies." He also probes the reasons the British ultimately prevailed in the settlement of North America. After all, at different times other countries had greater empires and more resources to put into colonization. In summary, he says, "The English succeeded as colonizers largely because their society was less successful at keeping people content at home." With free access to the overseas colonies, many poor and disaffected English citizens were eager to seek a new home.
Naturally, it made a significant difference which country or countries prevailed. Unlike the kings of France and Spain, Queen Elizabeth shared power with the aristocracy and gentry, whose representatives comprised Parliament. Only about 25 percent of the men owned enough property to be eligible to vote, and then only for the House of Commons, and women could not vote at all. Still, as Taylor writes, "the English constitution was extraordinarily open and libertarian when compared to the absolute monarchies then developing in the rest of Europe. Consequently, it mattered greatly to the later political culture of the United States that England rather than authoritarian Spain or France eventually dominated colonization north of Florida."
Taylor challenges some long held beliefs. "Contrary to popular myth," he writes, "most eighteenth-century emigrants did not come to America by their own free will in search of liberty. Nor were they Europeans. On the contrary, most were enslaved Africans forced across the Atlantic to work on plantations raising American crops for European markets. During the eighteenth century, the British colonies imported 1.5 million slaves more than three times the number of free immigrants." The author confronts the belief that 17th century English colonists fled religious persecution at home to go to a land that offered religious freedom. "In addition to omitting economic considerations, the myth grossly simplifies the diverse religious motives for emigration," he says. "Not all colonists had felt persecuted at home, and few wanted to live in a society that tolerated a plurality of religions."
Full of surprising revelations, this superb book is history at its best.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.